Data Motivates

Wired's cover story this month is about feedback loops. The open the story by talking about how those trailers you sometimes see parked on the side of the road that tell you your speed are one of the most effective ways to actually get drivers to slow down.

In essence, people make changes to their behavior when they have more information about it.  The mind gets into ruts, and data provides the outside perspective that allows us to make the small changes we need to make to improve our lives.  I may be mangling the thesis a bit since it has been a couple weeks since I read the article, but it is worth checking out in full.

This is one of my favorite passages:

The true power of feedback loops is not to control people but to give them control. It’s like the difference between a speed trap and a speed feedback sign—one is a game of gotcha, the other is a gentle reminder of the rules of the road. The ideal feedback loop gives us an emotional connection to a rational goal.

And today, their promise couldn’t be greater. The intransigence of human behavior has emerged as the root of most of the world’s biggest challenges. [emphasis added] Witness the rise in obesity, the persistence of smoking, the soaring number of people who have one or more chronic diseases. Consider our problems with carbon emissions, where managing personal energy consumption could be the difference between a climate under control and one beyond help. And feedback loops aren’t just about solving problems. They could create opportunities. Feedback loops can improve how companies motivate and empower their employees, allowing workers to monitor their own productivity and set their own schedules. They could lead to lower consumption of precious resources and more productive use of what we do consume. They could allow people to set and achieve better-defined, more ambitious goals and curb destructive behaviors, replacing them with positive actions. Used in organizations or communities, they can help groups work together to take on more daunting challenges. In short, the feedback loop is an age-old strategy revitalized by state-of-the-art technology. As such, it is perhaps the most promising tool for behavioral change to have come along in decades.


I've talked about components of feedback loops before, but not directly.  Most recently, I talked about the Fitbit.  A while ago, I wrote about the Wii Fit.  These are all tools that can help with weight loss by providing that data I need to make better decisions.  In the case of the Fitbit, it's shown I don't walk as much as I thought I did. In the case of the Wii Fit, the fact that it gave me scores at a minute level allowed me to make minor adjustments.

These benchmarks can provide a small, frequent, daily update of what I do.  To change the big things, I don't have to change the big thing.  It's about changing those little things.  Do enough of the little thing consistently well, and that results in the big change.

These other items provide the feedback necessary for the loop discussed in the article.

As sensors and mobile technology get smaller and ubiquitous, I wonder what kind of inputs to the feedback loop I'll be seeing in the future.

How do feedback loops and personal data impact your life?

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